Introspection and Agility

By Taufiq Khan

One of my favourite interview questions to ask Agile practitioners is ‘If you had to pick, which Agile ceremony would you say is the single most important one?’.

Bad candidates will argue that any missing ceremony is an unacceptable failure in the system. Good candidates will immediately compare and contrast each option, usually from the Scrum or XP framework. Great candidates will ponder the question in the context of their experiences, and articulate why a particular team practice (generally a retrospective one) empowers them to reach their potential and affect their outcomes.

What makes these candidates great? They exhibit introspection and self-awareness that will set an example for the teams they lead. They tend to be humble and gear towards servant leadership, which goes a long way towards fostering a high-performance Agile team. I think Ed Catmull articulates this mindset best:

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Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Too many in our line of work forget the original Agile principle of valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Perfectly executing rigid frameworks like Scrum or Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) might be a good starting point to get everyone playing by the same rules, but the art of Agile coaching is in iteratively and skillfully tailoring team processes towards success, and encouraging those around you to bravely do the same. While it might work for those less skilled in Agile methods, a culture of process adherence over creativity and outcome achievement is the fastest way to lose your talented staff.

Inspect and adapt, people first

Start with your people first (everyone, not just the ‘team’), identify and ruthlessly solve any dysfunction, and then steer them towards the right iterative practice. Real agility is about establishing a cadence for self-evaluation, in hypothesis testing, project delivery and team practices. It’s a rhythm that, when respected, will help you become better at getting better at what you do. As with marathon running, personal relationships, and most other worthwhile endeavours, sustainable success is the culmination of innumerable small steps in the right direction, or Kaizen.

Kaizen starts with introspection

Kaizen means ‘good change’ in Japanese. In productivity circles, it’s used to describe small continuous improvements. Put simply, it’s the idea that every aspect of an organisation should, at all times, strive to be better at what it does. You need to constantly, critically evaluate yourself and the relationship between your actions and their effects, because at some stage applying ‘best practices’ stops working, particularly in complex and chaotic environments. Instead, people must self-organize, relentlessly pursue their mission, and adapt their approach where they need to. In order to achieve this, we need to encourage not just retrospective analysis, but also deep personal introspection to truly understand what needs to change.

‘Doing Agile’ vs. ‘Being Agile’

It’s only through this kind of reflection, that we can start to understand what mindset and values need to be internalized and applied in order to succeed. We can then better understand our circle of control and influence and make the most impactful possible decisions towards our mission. It’s a big ask, but a necessary one, for everyone involved in Agile development to adopt these mindful practices in order to iterate towards the right mindset. The easiest litmus test to check whether your organisation has Agile maturity is to see how it reacts to a crisis: Do all the Agile practices disappear, or are the people and mechanisms in place trusted to deal with change? We need to recognize that doing Agile and being Agile are vastly different things and we need to consciously get better at both.

TL;DR: First we learned how to iterate our products, then we learned how to iterate our process. Now more than ever, a mindful focus on introspection is the only means to success in our endeavours, by iterating our mindset.

Any thoughts, ideas, or anything I’ve missed? Comment below!

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About the author

Taufiq Khan hails from sunny Sydney, Australia and has an intense curiosity for the systems and practices that result in great digital products. When he’s not obsessing over lean/Agile methods, you’ll find him running marathons or hunting for the perfect coffee brew. Sometimes, both. Taufiq brings his expertise in Agile to his current role as the Agile Transformation Lead at TribalScale out of the Dubai office.

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